Some Notes From Lieutenant Charles Pierce Part 1: The California Coast 1932-­1933

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During the 1930’s there was a huge geodetic surveying effort as thousands of men were hired on various federal projects meant to help mitigate the high unemployment of the Depression Era. Charles Pierce (not to be confused with the great Coast Survey scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce), destined to become a Coast and Geodetic Survey Rear Admiral, was chief of a triangulation party on one of these projects working in some of the most rugged and deserted areas of the western United States. Fortunately, Pierce was as handy with the pen as he was with a theodolite and recorded his experiences in some classic project reports. From jumping mules to offshore rocks covered with "the excreta of generations of seabirds to remind us of their departed", Pierce and his crews saw much of the American West when it was still in a relatively wild condition. Excerpts from some of his reports follow, giving an inkling into his experiences as a surveyor in near frontier territory.

Surveying Big Sur April 1932-March 1933
"… The country in this locality is about as wild and rugged as any that remains along the entire California coast. Rattlesnakes are plentiful, and many were killed by our party. Mountain lions are numerous and were seen by members of the reconnaissance party, from which Station Lion takes its names. Timber is scattering and the brush heavy and offered considerable difficulty in transportation off the few traveled trails. Water was at hand in most of the larger canyons during the dry months.

"The coast highway known as the Monterey-San Simeon link of the future coast highway, was being built northward from San Simeon and southward from Slates Hot Springs and had reached Kirk Creek on the southern end where a California State convict labor gang was headquartered….

"When the party started operating along the new Coast road south of Kirk Creek, the large 2 ½ ton Reo truck on the party was extremely valuable in hauling two pack animals over the road to such points on the highway as were used for packing to and from the various interior stations. A hard wood flooring with cleats across for footing was installed in the truck bed and the sides were built up to a safe height for hauling these animals. The two mules were trained to jump from the ground into the truck and also to jump directly from truck bed to the ground. This obviated the necessity for loading platforms, a very important consideration when such suitable loading places along the highway were few and far between. The horses never could be loaded with the ease that the mules could, and at times the camp resembled a small time rodeo when it was necessary to load the horses aboard the truck. In general, for packing, loading into trucks, general stamina, ease in handling, the mules were far more valuable to us than the horses and the four horses were returned to their owner shortly after making camp at Kirk Creek…."

"The station Plaskett Rock was located on the summit of a huge square shaped rock lying about ¼ mile offshore. Fortunately a fisherman chanced to be working in this locality with a small skiff and landings on the rock were made from Plaskett Cove; landings on the cove and on the rock were extremely dangerous during this period late in October, with a high swell running continuously. The rock was difficult to scale and lines from its top were used to haul building and instrumental equipment to the top. The instruments were lowered from the top where the rock dropped sheer to the ocean, into a small boat directly below to eliminate possible casualties in descending. This station was the most miserable for occupation of the entire project, with swarms of small flies, and the excreta of generations of sea birds to remind us of their departed. Several attempts were made before a landing was successfully made for occupation, ascending from the southeast corner….

"While working through here we met an old man operating the Los Burros mine who had worked for the Coast Survey party under Capt. Forney in the vicinity of Cayucos, when the original coastal triangulation was placed up the coast. He cheered us up with the information that we had it comparatively easy as the original party had a tremendous amount of brush to fight, and trails to clear; which since that time have been burned over in places or trails cut through….

A Fennel theodolite was subjected to a fall in the vicinity of Soda Mt. that merits recording. It was packed in its wooden box, and carried inside of a cow hide bag which was slung on one side of a pack mule, and the whole pack well tied on the pack saddle. The mule was trudging up a steep rocky trail at the time, with practically a straight drop on his left side. He was blind in the left eye, but had always proved sure footed if a trifle slow. The mule slipped on some rocks on the trail and fell back on his haunches, with the lead man holding to the halter line. The pack struck the rock wall on the inside of the trail, throwing the animal off his balance, and not being able to see to his left, he simply rolled off the trail, and down the steep slope. The man holding the lead line was forced to let go to save himself from the same fate. The mule rolled over and over down the slope, striking on the instrument box as he rolled, which projected some distance from his flanks, and dropped conservatively 75 feet down, striking on the instrument and pack several times in his descent. At the proper time in his roll he shot his legs out from under his body where they had been curled and simply landed square up on a flat bench about 75 feet below where he took off. From the tinkle of the glass, the distance of the drop, and the number of times the pack took the impact of the falling mule down the slope, we figured the instrument was certainly damaged beyond our repair and the mule probably internally injured.

"Upon examination of the situation the pack was still secured, the mule bleeding but active, for he started nibbling feed, and the instrument from a surface examination in good order. The tinkle of glass fortunately was the oil and shellac vials rather than microscopes or telescopes. As we were close to the summit of this pack we persuaded the animal to go over the scene of his recent tumble and to the station. The instrument did not require other than normal adjustment and performed as well from that time on as it had formerly. My respect for that type of Fennel theodolite is of the highest…." (Author’s note: How about for the mule?)

San Clemente Island June 1933
As part of their southern California work, it was necessary to establish survey control on San Clemente Island. As both the Coast Guard and Navy were unable to guarantee a return trip from the island, Pierce had to hire a fishing boat to pick up him and his crew when finished on San Clemente. The trip out was made on a Navy tug USS KOKA. The fishing boat charged $50.00 for the 120 mile trip–60 out and 60 back. Prior to getting to San Clemente, it was "an absolute impossibility to obtain any information concerning drinking water on the south end of the island"–consequently "we were forced to take over three 25-gallon barrels of fresh water as part of our equipment.

"The party and equipment was landed on the sandy beach on Smugglers Cove in a whale boat thru a moderate surf. The Navy personnel in returning to the anchored KOKA thru the surf capsized their whale boat, the only casualty being a broken oar…. On this section of the island the time of year we worked here it resembled a desert more than any other type of country. A low cactus, of ball type, made packing difficult as the sharp cactus penetrated the heaviest type of leather boot. There was practically no vegetation other than cactus, and all of the deep ravines and canyons were dry…."

Pierce and party completed the triangulation scheme to the Mexican border while working through San Diego. Both the famous El Cortez Hotel and the Point Loma Lighthouse hosted triangulation markers during this phase of the project. After completing work on the California coast and San Clemente Island, Pierce moved his triangulation party into the California desert and thence on to the high Sierra and Colorado Plateau. The story of his work and experiences will continue in Part 2 of this article, "Southwest Desert and Mountain."

Albert "Skip" Theberge served as a NOAA Corps officer for 27 years prior to retirement in 1995. During that period he was primarily engaged in nautical charting and seafloor mapping but also served a stint in geodesy working on the Transcontinental Traverse project during the 1970s. For the past 18 years he has worked as a research librarian at the NOAA Central Library and has produced a number of historical works related to the Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) and seafloor mapping. He also produced the NOAA History website ( and the NOAA Photo Library (www.photolib.noaa. gov) which includes thousands of historic photos related to the work of the C&GS.

A 1.969Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE